The Pope and the Pill
This week marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the regulation of birth). Remembered today as the Catholic Church’s official response to the increasing acceptance of birth control within marriage, the actual teaching contained within Humanae Vitae is much more complex and beautiful.
Much can be discussed when reflecting back on Humanae Vitae. What did it actually teach with regards to marriage and procreation? The widespread shock and open dissent by many theologians, laity and even clergy that greeted its release. The tepid support of the encyclical offered from many bishops conferences around the world. Finally, how the rejection of this teaching lead an entire generation of Catholics to dissent and disobedience.
Looking back over the past forty five years we can see that many of the current culture wars being waged have been built upon this “contraception foundation”. Divorce, abortion, pornography and gay “marriage” all require an acceptance of contraception, or to be more accurate, a contraceptive mentality. It is also important to look back at the prophetic warnings delivered by the Holy Father within Humanae Vitae that went largely unheeded by the faithful.
The Meaning of Marriage
To begin, what exactly did Pope Paul VI say about marriage in Humanae Vitae?
Marriage, and specifically married love, is first defined as a love that is “above all fully human”. It is meant to survive the ups and downs of life and to grow, “so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul”.
Pope Paul goes on to state that married love is a love which is total; a “special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything.”
Additionally, love within marriage is also “faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death.”
Finally, married love is that which is capable of bringing forth new life.
Pope Paul quotes the fathers of the Second Vatican Council when he proclaims that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage…”
The Unitive and Procreative Purpose of the Marital Act
Having described the nature of married love, Pope Paul VI then directly relates this to the true purpose of the conjugal act:
The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. (HV 12)
Abortion, Sterilization and Contraception
Having restated the constant teaching of the Church, and having just defined the purpose of both marriage and married love, Pope Paul next declares that all means of birth control are unlawful:
Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.(HV 14)
The Prophetic Warning
Most interesting, and tragic in hindsight, is the prophetic warning issued by Pope Paul VI and yet ignored by so many. Guided by the Holy Spirit and infallible on issues of faith and morals, the Catholic Church described in Humanae Vitae what a contracepting culture leads to.
First, Pope Paul VI warns that artificial methods of birth control would result in marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards, particularly among the young.
Second, the use of contraception causes the objectification of women, with men losing the sense of reverence for women and their physical and emotional equilibrium.
Thirdly, the promotion of artificial methods of contraception on populations by governments who care little for the precepts of the moral law would result in coercive measures and the loss of freedom.
The Culture of Death: The Fruit of Dissent
The Culture of Death, as Blessed John Paul II labeled contemporary society in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, was largely born out of the open dissent and hostility that greeted Humanae Vitae.
The laity largely rejected the authority of the Church in the matter of personal sexuality. A majority of theologians, many parish priests, religious sisters and even some bishops sought to simply dismiss the Church’s stance on contraception. For the past forty five years many of the faithful have either been quietly encouraged to “search their consciences” with regards to contraception or have simply never heard it addressed by their priest. I recently heard on the radio a prelate of the Church, an archbishop of a major American diocese, say matter of factly that he could not remember the last time he had given a homily on contraception.
So what has been the “fruit” of this rejection of Humanae Vitae?
Contraception has now been defined as health care, as a right and as something that must be subsidized by tax payer money and provided for by employers regardless of conscience or religious conviction.
Roe v. Wade was still five years in the future when Humanae Vitae was issued. However, in the 40 years since the Supreme Court “discovered” the right to an abortion in the U.S. Constitution we have seen over 50 million unborn killed in the womb.
Pornography, the ultimate objectification of women and a complete distortion of the true meaning of sex, is now a multi-billion dollar industry that is as close as the computer or television in your own home. Worse yet, “mainstream” society has largely recognized pornography as legitimate entertainment. Pornography epitomizes and celebrates the idea of sex strictly for pleasure.
Widespread fornication among the young. The proponents of the Culture of Death advise that sex education from an earlier age (even as early as kindergarten), and easy access to birth control, is the solution for this plague. Contraception, the root cause of the problem, is now presented as the solution to the problem.
The cultural acceptance of cohabitation. Catholics are getting married less and less, and waiting longer to get married on average. These cohabitating couples are firmly convinced of the very necessity to contracept since children are (as of yet) unwanted.
Same Sex Attraction and the Homosexual agenda. In 1968 there was no vast, mainstream, homosexual movement. The American Psychological Association (APA) was still several years away from removing the stigma of “mental illness” from same sex attraction. The rationale for their cause was aided by an entire generation of heterosexuals engaging in sterile, recreational, sex strictly for pleasure who had no compelling argument for why homosexuals shouldn’t also be allowed to engage in sterile, recreational, sex strictly for pleasure. Neither relationships were producing life. With the “Marriage Equality” movement we are now seeing the logical and destructive culmination of this contraceptive mentality.
Take a moment over the next week or so to read the full encyclical (the link is below). We have to remember that contraception is now deeply and tragically engrained within our culture. Seek to become an advocate for life and for an openess to the gift of life. The powerful and personal witness of your marriage and family is ultimately the best evangelization we can offer for life and the blessing of children. In the end, this is the best way to commemorate the anniversary of Humanae Vitae.